In 1861, when Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria was poleaxed. So great was her grief, so deep her mourning, that she retreated from the world and lived much of the rest of her life in virtual retirement. ‘The widow of Windsor’ dressed in black for 40 years, neglecting her duties in her sorrow to such an extent that her prime ministers feared her invisibility ran the risk of jeopardising the monarchy.
Elizabeth II is not like her great-great-grandmother.
Our Queen, who marks her 95th birthday today, is a remarkable woman, driven by duty and sustained by faith. Which is why photos from Prince Philip’s funeral of Her Majesty all alone at the end of her pew at St George’s Chapel – that spoke of her apparent loneliness, and the cruelty of it – did not tell the whole story.
I do not believe the Queen felt alone at her beloved husband’s funeral. She is accustomed to walking in procession and being seated on her own: she has been doing it all her life. She is Queen after all. She sat as she sat at Saturday’s funeral because of the current COVID regulations; she would not have dreamt of doing so otherwise. She leads by example. But she does not feel alone in the house of God – it is perhaps where she feels most at ease, for her a place of comfort and consolation. The teachings of Christ are the foundation of her life – as she has made clear towards the end of every one of her Christmas broadcasts since her accession in 1952.
Anyone who has had five minutes – let alone 74 years – to consider the Queen knows that when, as Princess Elizabeth, on another birthday, her 21st birthday back in 1947, she said, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service”, she meant it. At her Coronation she made a commitment to God as well as to her people and her faith sustains her in all she does. She is God’s anointed monarch. ‘Be thou anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the Peoples, who the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern…’ were the words addressed to her by her first Archbishop of Canterbury at the most solemn moment of her Coronation – and she has not forgotten them. She lives by them.
From the Queen’s perspective a church is the least lonely place to be in your darkest hour. But not everyone understands that. On Sunday 31 August 1997, when Princess Diana was killed in that terrible car accident in Paris, the Queen was at Balmoral, on holiday with her family. At 2.00am she was woken with news of the accident. At 3.30am, the British embassy in Paris confirmed that Diana was dead. That day – to the surprise of some and to criticism from the press – the Queen and Prince Philip did exactly what anyone who knew them would have expected them to do. They comforted their grandsons in private and, in public, went about their business as usual. They took William and Harry to church with them on that fateful Sunday morning both because William and Harry wanted to go, and because the Queen believes that, at times of tribulation, there is no better place to be.
Her faith is her rock and doing things much as they have always been done is a practice that, on the whole, has served her well. There is comfort to be had from familiar hymns and prayers. There is solace to be found in form and custom long-established, and in doing what you have to do in the way that you normally do it.
The Queen likes going to church. On a Sunday morning, she sometimes goes twice – first, privately, for Holy Communion and then, later, dressed in an outfit in which to be photographed, for Matins with other members of the family. (The press, as a rule, respect her privacy and photographs and footage are rarely taken of her first church visit of the day.).